Older people demanding full life

Rekha Chowdhary
October 1 has been recognised as the International day of the elderly. It was in the year 1990 that the United Nations designated the day and recognised the need of paying attention to this class of people both in the developing and developed world. As per the information provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the total population of the people above the age of sixty is 600 million and this number is expected to double by the year 2025. In India itself, the number of the elderly people is growing at a fast speed. As per a report of the HelpAge India, the elderly people had crossed the 100 million mark in 2014 and this number was expected to increase to 143 million  by 2021. By 2050 they will form one-fifth of the total population of the country.
Are we prepared for this increasing population of the elderly people?  Of course, the important visible concern of the ageing people is related to their health.  Deterioration of health is certainly the most crucial issue confronted by the elderly people. Alzheimer, Parkinsons, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and cancer are some of the most common diseases with which many of the elderly people are afflicted. With a larger population of the elderly being part of the underprivileged group, the health problem of the aged involves medical expenses; hospitalisation costs, and nursing issues.

Simply Stated
Rekha Chowdhary

However, apart from this very crucial visible issue confronting the aged, there are many other issues faced by the older people in our society which remain unrecognised. Most of these issues emanate from a societal bias against the age and ageing and stereotyping of the elderly as ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘dependent’, ‘inert’, ’mentally weak’ and therefore redundant. It is this stereotyping which makes elderly increasingly invisible in the public spaces and pushed to the ‘corners’ within their private life. One gets totally confused when one sees a large number of elderly people (as well as the physically challenged persons)  in the public spaces in the western countries- like in the market, in public parks, holiday trips, theatres and clubs and the comparison comes to our mind, since we do not see our elderly in these spaces here. The only legitimate public space that is available for the elderly  for us, is the religious space. It is assumed that as people age, they will be interested mostly in religion-related activities. If else, they may be seen in public parks in the evenings and mornings – but that is all. Neither does the society nor does the state have any idea about the ‘entertainment’  and ‘socialising’ needs of the elderly.  Loneliness, is one of the major issue confronted by the aged in India. Most of the aged in India are dependent on their spouses for the human company and interaction. In the fast moving life where the sons and daughters are busy in mad race of life, the elders have only themselves or their grandchildren to communicate with. For those who lose their partners, life actually becomes hell. With no one to communicate to, no one to socialise with and nowhere to go, even physically healthy people become mentally tormented.
The problem of being ‘left alone’ even while living within the family is a consequence not only of changing pattern of community and family structure but also of changing value system and lifestyles. This is not only the problem of individualised lives replacing the community life and the single unit family substituting the large joint family system but also the very ‘inward-looking’ life that everyone leads, especially in the urban areas. Human communication, in any case is being affected by the increasing number of gadgets that people possess and the increasing space for virtual life that people live in. Thus it is very ‘normal to see two people walking together and each one of them busy on the cell-phone;  or people engrossed in their own laptop while being ‘at home’ or planning a new house with a different TV set for each room. In this kind of life, many of the elderly people are forced to spend their life closeted in a room, at best with a TV of their own with minimum kind of interaction with people in the real world.
In a place like Jammu, where there is no state or private institution for the aged – of course other than hospitals – one can imagine what can happen to an elderly who is physically fit and has the desire to socialise. The only other institution is the ‘old-age’ home which in itself is a limited space and mainly meant for those abandoned and having no one to care for. For many others, who might be better placed in terms of material conditions, there is no such space where they can go and spend their time.
Ageing in India, or for that matter, in South Asia itself, is a problematised concept. Our societies are positively inclined towards the young. The world exists for the young, the market is defined by the choices of the young, the entertainment industry aims at attracting the young. It is true that the young form the larger part of the society and hence their choices dominate, but it is not this issue only. Ageing in itself is seen negatively, while youth is ‘idealised’. That is the reason that people ‘desire’ to remain young forever. With us, there is no concept either of ageing in a dignified manner or giving sense of ‘dignity’ to the aged. Ageing is seen as such a curse that people are not comfortable with revealing their age, that is if they are on the wrong side of the age. While some people want to remain in their ‘twenties’, for many others, entering the forties gives them a sense of crisis. This bias is much more stronger for women who are supposed to lose all their value when they grow ‘old’. That there is a concept of ageing gracefully – is totally missing.
It is no wonder that with all these biases the elder people are living on the margins of society. No meaning is given to their life. They are supposed to have ‘finished’ with everything that life is associated with and having no purpose of life.
It is in this context that the International day of the older people assumes lot of significance for us. This day is a reminder that the older people continue to be productive and have multiple roles to play in the society. Most of them remain mentally alert and many of them want to live a full life. They desire intellectual stimulation, social interaction and human communication.
(Feedback welcome at rekchowdhary@gmail.com)

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